Cologne Travel Guide

Cologne Travel Guide

Known as the ‘other’ gay capital of Germany, Cologne is the less obvious – yet in no way inferior – gaycation destination of choice. An easy-going city reminiscent of Southern Europe whenever the sun comes out, Cologne boasts an entirely unique architectural landscape where the meandering alleyways of the Old Town lead towards post-war industrial districts revamped with trendy artisan offerings and café culture for days. Enjoy the city’s hearty speciality of Himmel und Erde alongside a crisp locally crafted Kölsch Beer, before exploring along the Rhine to find Roman relics, a renowned cathedral and endless museums and art galleries. With Carnival and Bear Pride in winter as well as the main Pride and Fetish Pride in the summer, Cologne is bound to keep you entertained all year round particularly in the gay nightlife hubs on Schaafenstrasse and around the Heumarkt area. Wondering what to do in Cologne? Put your faith in our definitive Cologne gay city guide.

The best hotels in Cologne

Let’s kick off our Cologne gay travel guide with a roundup of the best places to stay. THE QVEST hideaway is an ideal top choice, located in a beautifully restored neo-Gothic building that gives off a cathedral-like atmosphere while the inside comes fitted with simple and minimalistic styles inspired by fifties and sixties classics. Located in the heart of Cologne’s Old Town, just minutes from the best Cologne points of interest and the top bars, cafés and restaurants, this luxury hotel is a stylish escape serving up a great breakfast every morning at the on-site restaurant. Another conveniently placed five-star gem is the Excelsior Hotel Ernst am Dom, directly across from the Cologne Cathedral. In addition to elegant rooms and award-winning cuisine, the Excelsior has been family-run since 1863, giving the feeling of homely luxury throughout its spacious rooms. Aside from its Michelin-starred French restaurant, guests can also try the Excelsior’s Asian fusion restaurant and live piano bar before relaxing in the gym and sauna.

On the banks of the Rhine lies Art’otel Cologne, nicely placed in the historic city centre just five minutes from the gay scene around the Heumarkt. As well as minimalistic, spacious rooms, this artsy hotel’s facilities include an outdoor terrace, sauna, library and international restaurant. Over on a side street of the Old Town, close to all the best Cologne sightseeing sites, is the Stern am Rathaus, offering modern design, a breakfast buffet and café. If being close to Cologne’s gay scene is a top priority, the Steigenberger Hotel Köln may tempt you, located as it is just five minutes from the top Schaafenstrasse gay bars; IRON, Die Mumu and ExCorner. With many of its spacious rooms featuring stunning views over the city, the Steigenberger is a four-star beauty, complete with a restaurant serving up a daily buffet breakfast and a bistro bar for late-night hydration and snacks.

Excelsior Hotel Ernst am Dom

Excelsior Hotel Ernst am Dom

Stern am Rathaus | Photo: Anna Wagner

Stern am Rathaus | Photo: Anna Wagner

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Recommended hotels in Cologne
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Things to do in Cologne

Visiting the Gothic Cathedral of Cologne, or “Kölner Dom, should feature on your must-see list. It is an impressive architectural masterpiece and the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. Adjacent to the Dom is the Roman-Germanic Museum with an extensive collection of artefacts from the Roman settlement on which modern Cologne is built. Right next to the museum is a short stretch of excavated Roman Street, where you can walk a street dating back to the Roman Empire.

Only steps away from the Dom, is the Rhine River and the “Altstadt”, the oldest part of Cologne. With its narrow winding streets, it feels like a movie set.

Architecture lovers should pay a visit to the Kolumba Museum, built by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. This beautiful, contemporary “living” museum as he calls it, incorporates the ruins of an old destroyed chapel and a Romanesque church within its walls.

Aachener Strasse | Photo: Claudia Schwarz

Aachener Strasse | Photo: Claudia Schwarz

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Recommended experiences in Cologne
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Photo: Crane Homes

Photo: Crane Homes

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By no means the largest Old Town in Germany, there is still plenty to love in Cologne’s historical quarter

What to see in Cologne

Established around two thousand years ago and acting as an important trade hub for centuries thanks to its prime Rhine River location is the Cologne’s Old Town. The majority of Cologne’s Old Town was destroyed during the war and remained in a state of disrepair for some years until the economy strengthened once more. By no means the largest Old Town in Germany, there is still plenty to love in Cologne’s historical quarter. Take your time to roam the quaint alleyways that diverge from the river to find rows of traditional buildings – many of which now house boutiques, galleries, cafés and restaurants – various monuments and even an Archaeological Zone where you’ll discover ancient ruins and artefacts from Cologne’s rich past. Of the area’s highlights, the architectural feat, Groß Sankt Martin Church, and the nation’s oldest public building, the Kölner Rathaus, are not to be missed.

But Cologne’s vibrant city districts don’t end there. The Belgian Quarter, located between Aachener Straße in the south and Friesenplatz in the northeast, is another for the itinerary, known as one of the city’s trendiest neighbourhoods for its vintage boutiques, hip bars and cafés, theatres and live music venues. Brüsseler Platz in particular, filled with trendy eateries and coffee roasters, is where Cologne’s cool kids come to chill. If you do decide to come for a slow morning of caffeinated wandering, make sure to make a stop at Ehrenfeld, another trendy neighbourhood of welcoming locals, brimming with charm thanks to its revitalized industrial architecture and multicultural atmosphere. In addition to many boutiques, shops, cafes and restaurants, the area is also a hotspot for some of the city’s best street art and graffiti. A serious competitor to Berlin’s famed street art scene, Cologne offers large murals from esteemed international artists, various installations and poster art covering the house fronts, walls and lamposts around Veedel. Explore alone or jump in with a guided tour.

Photo: Valdas Miskinis

Photo: Valdas Miskinis

Tracing back to Roman times, Cologne is the perfect city for history buffs and art lovers. Its museums are world-class and among its best offerings are Museum Ludwig and The Museum of Applied Art. Behind the Cologne Cathedral, the Museum Ludwig is the place to go for modern and contemporary painting, offering one of the largest Picasso collections in Europe. Photography exhibitions are also common features here, with the Agfa-Foto-Historama charting the art of photography since the 1840s. Meanwhile, at The Museum of Applied Art, you’ll find a fine collection of 100,000 applied and decorative artworks from the medieval period onwards, as well as bonus collections of furniture, armoury, architecture and industrial design.

Escape the stuffy halls in favour of Cologne’s blissful green spaces with a visit to Flora und Botanischer Garten Köln, the city’s botanical gardens on the left bank of the Rhine. A million people visit each year to check out the thousands of plant species on display over 11 hectares of outdoor park and exotic greenhouses. The Flora is a long-standing building on-site, serving as both an elegant backdrop and a venue for flower shows, concerts and events. An even older site near the city is Schloss Augustusburg, a UNESCO prized palace located in the cute town of Brühl just 15 kilometres south of Cologne’s city centre. Easily accessible by Ubahn and train, Schloss Augustusburg attracts tons of visitors each year for its 18th-century heritage and famed entrance hall ceiling which features an incredible trompe d’oeil mural. Take a guided tour to learn more about the life of the Archbishop of Cologne or, on a sunny day, trawl the magnificent grounds surrounding.

Another peaceful – if slightly maudlin – site is the Melaten Cemetery. In use over the past two centuries, this atmospheric spot is the resting place for many of Cologne’s wealthy and noble figures, including the Farina family, of Eau de Cologne fame. Free to enter and open until nightfall, the Melatan Cemetery is a great place to escape the chaos of the centre, surrounding yourself with remarkable sculptures and all kinds of flora and fauna.

Kölner Dom | Photo: Liane Metzler

Kölner Dom | Photo: Liane Metzler

Photo: Tom Sodoge

Photo: Tom Sodoge

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Contemporary food and drink are on offer on Aachener Strasse, with the largest selection of restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs in town

Where to eat in Cologne

Visiting a Cologne Brewery and having some Kölsch, paired with German food, is obligatory. The best breweries can be found outside the bustling tourist area, one of them being the historical Päffgen. More contemporary food and drink are on offer on Aachener Strasse, with the largest selection of restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs in town. In the evening and during weekends people swarm here to see and be seen. The most delectable choice is Schmitz. Its features several entertainment options right next to each other: Salon, Metzgerei, Bar Schmitz and a club called Coco Schmitz offering fun gay nights and fabulous disco sounds. The food at the bar and salon is delicious, featuring superb homemade cakes and Cologne’s best ice cream during summer months. To top things off, they serve their own microbrew, Schmitz Kölsch.

A great restaurant a little outside the Belgian Quarter is Acht. Their German fusion food and wines are excellent, but the beautiful interior alone makes it worth a visit. With its industrial chic, rough walls and industrial palette wine shelving it has a nice ambience and unique atmosphere.

To round out the evening with a great cocktail, Spirits is the place to go. The menu is extensive and the dapper bartenders, all dressed in white shirts and suspenders, master their craft. Even better than ordering a cocktail from the menu, is asking for your favourite bespoke concoction.

Päffgen | Photo: Claudia Schwarz

Päffgen | Photo: Claudia Schwarz

Shopping in Cologne

Not far from the Kolumba Museum is the birth house of the original Eau de Cologne. They still sell 4711, dating all the way back to the 18th century. Included is also a small fragrance museum, where the history of the perfume can be viewed.

Cologne is well known for its assortment of interior design stores. Most of them are located along the Ring, formerly the old city wall and now a major traffic artery splitting the city centre in half. One of the most exclusive is pesch, carrying various high-end furniture brands.

4711 Eau de Cologne | Photo: Claudia Schwarz

4711 Eau de Cologne | Photo: Claudia Schwarz

The discriminating gentleman on the prowl for a new wardrobe addition will find Cologne to offer a lot of exquisite boutiques. The best ones can be found off the beaten path, away from main shopping boulevards and the big store chains. They are tucked away in side streets, mainly in and around the Belgian Quarter, or “Belgisches Viertel”. This is the trendy part of town, home to designers and smaller speciality stores for fashion, jewellery and interior design. Herr von Eden is one of the best menswear brands in Germany, with boutiques in three cities, one of them Cologne. They carry everything the modern dandy needs, such as dress shirts, tailor-made suits and bow ties. Citta di Bologna boasts high-end brands such as Dries van Noten, Maison Margiela and Rick Owens. Another unique and more eccentric option is Monsieur Courbet. This shop is home to elegant streetwear from relatively unknown labels, as well as a curated selection of vinyl, with an onsite DJ treating customers to the latest tunes. Marvellously traditional Jürgen Eifler is a must for gents who love to complete their look with a stylish, custom-made hat. Stepping into this space feels like entering the era of The Great Gatsby.

Herr von Eden

Herr von Eden

Jürgen Eifler | Photo: Claudia Schwarz

Jürgen Eifler | Photo: Claudia Schwarz

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The city’s two major gay areas can cover the fancies of the older leather scene on the Old Town’s Heumarkt-Mathiasstrasse while the more modern area around Rudolfplatz caters to the young and trendy

Cologne nightlife

The gay capital of West Germany with a more friendly and easy-going atmosphere than you’ll find in the east, Cologne inevitably has an great nightlife scene. While seemingly more provincial than wildly dynamic Berlin, Cologne feels familiar and wholly more welcoming. The city’s two major gay areas can cover the fancies of the older leather scene on the Old Town’s Heumarkt-Mathiasstrasse while the more modern area around Rudolfplatz caters to the young and trendy. To ease into our Cologne gay nightlife guide let’s start with a cocktail. Spirits is an award-winning cocktail bar in the trendy district, garnering titles such as the “Best Bar in Germany” and “Best Mixologist” and offering sophisticated 1950s styles with amazing service. The high-quality drinks here are reasonable and the atmosphere is welcoming, attracting a diverse clientele of students, businessmen and even dishevelled leather guys.

Despite being located in the student neighbourhood of Zülpicher Strasse, ONA MOR – Cocktail Creatorium isn’t a student dig. In fact, it is one of the chicest cocktail bars in Cologne, where skilled bartenders serve up exquisite secret-recipe cocktails, such as the gin and tamarind Hang Tang, in sleek, flatteringly lit surrounds. One more cocktail can’t hurt at the plush hotel bar known as Seibert – Classic Bar & Liquid Kitchen. Giving off the vibe of an English members-only club with its chandelier-lit and red curtain clad interiors, Seibert offers a range of comfy seating options including the lounge area’s Chesterfield sofas and the heated courtyard’s garden furniture. Tranquil and elegant, Seibert attracts an older crowd searching for great wine, cocktails and a memorable experience.

To kick it up a notch, let’s amble over to Cologne’s best gay bars. Ex-Corner, the mother of all gay bars in the city, is a great place to start among cosy interiors and attractive, young clientele. Open until the early hours, Ex-Corner offers a daily happy hour, food menu and popular playlist occasionally studded with German folk-pop cheesiness. A new gay bar on the scene is Ruhrpott, fast establishing itself as the go-to place for great nibbles and fantastic cocktails, with the music volume at a perfect level for socialising. Then there’s the crazier Die Mumu, perfect for those keen to dance the night away to pop music among a youthful, energetic bunch. Frequently hosting karaoke nights, drag parties and other themed evenings, Die Mumu is a playful space where there’s always something to look at, even in the bathroom!

ONA MOR

ONA MOR

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